The reinvention of positionless basketball explained

By Klyde Manansala | Art by Marian Hukom

The five traditional positions in basketball—point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward, and center—prescribe what role players have to play according to their height and length. Players below 6’5” are usually relegated in the backcourt while taller players are positioned near the basket to protect the rim.

But this culture could be coming to an end.

With the influx of players who have showcased versatility, the NBA—and basketball in general—has revolutionized the game as it transitions to a brand new system we’ve constantly seen in modern-day basketball: the positionless game.

More and more NBA teams today are signing up players who can guard and play multiple positions, cover the court, and cash in on a free-flowing system where height is secondary. Simply put, efficiency and versatility are more appreciated as these players happen to have skill sets that go beyond what we typically expect based on their positions.

We now see teams who play one center and four guards or wings—all of whom can take three-point shots. The game today has valued three-point shooting more than ever, thanks to the Golden State Warriors, which is, frankly, the epitome of positionless basketball. Stephen Curry, arguably the best shooter of his generation, is surrounded by a set of guys who can call the shots and shoot from the outside. This system ultimately threw off their opponents’ defense as soon as they started to move the ball quickly and set up mismatches. Leave one man open, regardless of height, and it’s an automatic three.

Here’s a perfect example of how the Warriors easily made the defense scramble:

Centers designated to monitor the paint are now things of the past. Now, majority of centers are seen pulling up from beyond the arc. While we’ve already seen tall players who can nail perimeter jumper—Larry Bird and Dirk Nowitzki come to mind—the number of frontcourt players who can shoot far from the rim has totally ascended. Lauri Markannen, Joel Embiid, DeMarcus Cousins, Kristaps Porzingis, Anthony Davis, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Draymond Green are just a few who took their game to the next level.

Besides being an outside threat, some centers are also equipped with the ability to bring down the ball and pass with precision. Take Nikola Jokic, regarded as the NBA’s best passing-center today:

Centers aren’t the only players who are completely redefining their positions. Young stars today are usually wings—also called point-forwards—who stand 6’7” and above and can basically play and defend all positions on the floor. Look at Ben Simmons, Jayson Tatum, Luka Doncic, and Giannis Antetokounmpo. All of them are tall, lengthy, and with a sizable strength that enables them to stay in front of an attacker.

So long as players can shoot, play pick-and-roll, and handle the ball, they could now be tagged as a guard or forward. Antetokounmpo, a 6’11” wing, usually runs offense for the Milwaukee Bucks. When mismatched against a typical small point guard, his length and wing span make it hard for any defender to stay with him:

Because of Antetokounmpo’s ability to bring down the ball, the Bucks always takes advantage of his versatility by drawing a mismatch off a pick-and-roll play, forcing Terry Rozier, a guard who lacks the strength and size, to guard him. What’s odd is that in this play, it was Malcolm Brogdon—a legitimate point guard—who set the pick for Antetokounmpo, a wing player. It just goes to show how the game has really evolved.

Times are changing. Players are evolving. Systems are revolutionizing. In an era when multi-skilled players are valued more than one-trick ponies, it’s up to the teams whether to adapt to the new, highly-effective positionless game or figure out a way to counter it.